5 Differences Between Long Distance Hiking and Ultra Long Distance Hiking
1. Weeks vs. Months
Let’s start with the obvious: the time commitments are vastly different. The average hiker completes the AT in 6 months. I’ll go ahead and admit that it took me nearly 6.5 months. Thus, for an ultra long distance hike, the demographic is typically divided into two age groups: hikers in their 20s, just finishing undergrad and pondering life’s possibilities, and recent retirees who are ready for a new adventure.
Shorter long distance trails (e.g. Long Trail or John Muir Trail) are more amenable to the average worker’s accrued vacation time. In the 3-4 weeks it may take you to hike one of these trails, you will likely meet a wide variety of hikers who did not turn their lives upside down in order to hike.
2. Hungry Hiker vs. Hiker Hunger
Most hikers will burn 4-6,000 calories a day. So, whether you hike for 3-4 weeks or half a year, hours of conversation will inevitably revolve around town food fantasies. Still, there is a noteworthy difference between working up an appetite or hiking for so long that your body is constantly in a calorie deficit.
It’s the difference between heading into town and happily devouring a cheeseburger, beer, and ice cream vs. manically looking for the closest McDonald’s and ordering everything you can from the dollar menu…and then going to Taco Bell. It’s the difference between eating a pint of ice cream vs. a half gallon. It’s the difference between seeing fallen food on the Trail and packing it out like the responsible LNT person you are vs. eyeing it hungrily, wiping the dirt away, and considering yourself lucky while devouring this unexpected treasure.
3. Sore Muscles vs. Hiker Hobble
Lots of hiking = lots of aches and pains. Admittedly, I’ve never done well staying in shape over the winter. Each summer, muscles ache in unimaginable ways and in unimaginable places after my first backpacking trip. Prior to the AT, I always assumed my body would eventually adapt and the pain caused by hiking would ebb and flow.
This was not so for ultra long distance hiking. When hiker hobble truly set in on the AT, it meant that maneuvering out of the tent and into an upright position each morning was a daunting task. It meant feeling like the Tin Man sans oil can every time a well deserved break came to an end. It meant chronic pain from head to toe for 6.5 months. Plus another two months post-Katahdin, for good measure.
You know what they say: “No pain. No rain. No Maine.” Trust me, it’s worth it for Maine!
4. 1 Season vs. 3 Seasons (or 4)
If you’re hiking a trail that takes only 3-4 weeks to complete, you have the luxury of picking which season is ideally suited for your hiking style. For those that enjoy the social aspects of the trail, and potentially hiking lighter, summer may be the best fit. For those who want to avoid the crowds (and insects) and see stunning foliage, autumn might be right up your alley. By comparison, an ultra long distance thru-hiker will likely be hitting three seasons, no matter what. And up in the mountains, it may very well seem as though you tap all four.
5. Novelty vs. Work
This, to me, has been the defining difference between a long distance hike and an ultra long distance hike. In my experience, the novelty of backpacking has never worn off during a 3-4 week trip. On both the LT and JMT, I awoke each morning with renewed energy to hike, to take in the world around me, to meet new people, to adventure. To be fair, it was not all rainbows and unicorns — inclement weather was inclement weather, and anytime I woke up in the rain, I took some time to wallow before moving on.
Yet keeping a positive mental attitude on the LT and JMT came with relative ease. The same cannot be said of the AT. For most ultra long distance hikers, the mental challenges can be as difficult as the physical challenges. It is hard work to find the mental fortitude to push through injuries, to forget about the daunting number of miles that lie ahead, to keep walking through endless days of rain/cold/mud/gnats/heat, and to contend with the number of ticks you find in the most unsavory of places.
I am incredibly fortunate to have found time in my life to experience both. These differences are what make long distance hiking my favorite vacation, and ultra long distance hiking my proudest accomplishment.
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